I’ve been exploring this questions like this throughout the entirety of this project--what is the right balance between performance and programming? Is a backing track a lazy substitute for a “real” band? How long is it entertaining to watch someone twist knobs on effects? Does anyone even care what’s “live” as long as it sounds good?
Philosophically, I care a lot about getting this balance right and finding a way of performing that feel both honest and exciting. As i’ve developed my new solo set, I consciously made the decision to ditch the laptop on stage and instead use only hardware equipment including an MPC sampler, synthesizer and looping pedals. This change has brought a brand new set of challenges and limitations, but also a sense of accomplishment and possibility as it forced me to restructure songs and rethink what makes a performance interesting. It opened up an avenue for flexibility and improvisation by making things simpler and making mistakes recoverable. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using a laptop live if it you know how to use it well, but it’s easy to get stuck in the grid and stop having fun. The beauty is in the tension between perfection and human error. In a live performance, disaster is always lurking within the realm of possibility.
Creating out of necessity
To be completely honest, the primary reason I strayed away from using a laptop on stage is because I can’t afford a reliable enough laptop in the first place. A machine is a machine. A laptop can be as musical as any other instrument. More important than what equipment you use is how you make the equipment work for you. The musicianship. If all you have is a Casiotone and a looper (that was me a year ago) then go for it . Obviously it’s nice to have some decent equipment to start with, but it doesn’t take much. There’s always someone out there making cooler music than you with less. Always. It’s almost as discouraging as it is motivating when you think about it.
Another huge challenge i’ve had with electronic music is how to effectively apply limitations. Self-imposed limitations are key to creativity, but it’s so incredibly difficult when you have literally thousands of plug-ins, samples and software instruments you can waste your time scrolling through. This is why I only use one synthesizer and one sampler when I perform live. I imagine my setup for live performance will continue to evolve (as it has with almost every show I perform in one way or another), but it will always have to keep within some set of predetermined limitations and that means sacrificing something. I’m a firm believer that a live performance shouldn’t aim to exactly recreate a recording. It should simply recreate a vibe.
After all this learning and readjusting, I’m already getting ready to shake up the whole setup and add a live drummer...I’m sure that will open it’s own set of possibilities as well as limitations.